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Interview with Renée D’Aoust

Renee DAoust

Author Renée E. D’Aoust and I met at the fabulous Zurich Writers’ Workshop, where I taught a fiction intensive in May and met writers at all stages – from total beginners to seasoned pros. It was a thrill to receive Renée’s book in the mail and I am delighted to interview her about Body of a Dancer, a book of ten acts and a witty, bittersweet coda.

The award-winning writer Renée E. D’Aoust draws from her experiences as a modern dancer in New York during the nineties. Her luminous prose spotlights this passionate, often brutal world. Trained at the prestigious Martha Graham Center, D’Aoust intertwines accounts of her own and other dancers’ lives with essays on modern dance history. A dancer’s body, scarred, strained, and tough, bears witness to the discipline demanded by the art form. Body of a Dancer provides a powerful, acidly comic record of what it is to love, and eventually leave, a life centered on dance.
“With exquisite description, absolute honesty, and a clear compelling voice, Body of a Dancer offers an unforgettable account of one artist’s bittersweet journey.”—Dinty W. Moore
Renée E. D’Aoust’s essays have been featured as notable essays in Best American Essays in 2006, 2007, and 2009. Her nonfiction work has been included in the anthology Reading Dance, edited by Robert Gottlieb and nominated for the Pushcart Prize. D’Aoust is the recipient of an NEA Dance Criticism fellowship and grants from The Puffin Foundation and the Idaho Commission on the Arts.

Renée draws from her experiences as a modern dancer in New York, a passionate and brutal world. Trained at the prestigious Martha Graham Center, she intertwines accounts of her own and other dancers’ lives with essays on modern dance history. A dancer’s body, scarred, strained, and tough, bears witness to the discipline demanded by the art form. If you are in Montana, I hope you’ll consider going to Renée’s reading on December 11th at 1 p.m. at Fact & Fiction, a wonderful independent bookstore in Missoula.

Renée, thank you for sending a copy of the book! The cover is gorgeous. Were you happy with it?

Yes! I’m very happy with the book and with Etruscan Press. The executive editor, Phil Brady, welcomed the book with open arms. The managing editor, Starr Troup, leads the way with great skill and dedication. Starr designed the beautiful cover. And Julianne Popovec created a warm interior design. Everyone at Etruscan has been super.

What took you to Switzerland? What keeps you there?

My husband took a research position in Switzerland, so I moved across a continent and an ocean for love. I also spend a great deal of time in Idaho on our family’s stewardship forest. I teach online at North Idaho College, and I write dance reviews from Switzerland, so I work wherever I find myself. And I’ve come to love the multiple perspectives from which I now view western culture.

In America, there is one role for every four hundred trained dancers. What does this mean to you? Were you aware of this statistic when you started out?

Yes, I was always aware that my life as a dancer could be over in an instant and that it might not come to the fruition I envisioned. Break a leg, have a concussion, snap an Achilles tendon, don’t get the part; boom, you’re done. The knowledge that there can be an instant evaporation of years of training really focuses your mind.

As a whole, dancers are an incredibly resilient, resourceful lot. I miss the kind of instant camaraderie that dancers often have with each other: “Here are our bodies, let’s move together!” Of course, I’m being nostalgic. The competition is fierce.

Can you tell us a little bit about your book? What inspired this memoir?

In 1997, I started a poem about a dancer I very much admired, with whom I had danced, who ended her life. The poem, “Theatrical Release,” later became part of the genesis of my memoir.

I wanted to fill the void in dance literature about the anonymous dancer. There are tell-all stories by famous dancers, but we lack stories by all the others who fill so many different levels of the dance community: students, their parents, teachers, choreographers, those who train and move onward, and that beautiful dancer in the fifth row of the corps. As I continued the project, I realized the book explores the parallels between dancing and writing, and the pursuit of all creative dreams.

What books are on your nightstand?

Adorni & Primorac, “English Grammar for Students of Italian”

Matt Bell, “How They Were Found”

Pema Chodron, “Practicing Peace in Times of War”

Pete Egoscue, “Pain Free: A Revolutionary Method for Stopping Chronic Pain”

Robert Gottlieb’s anthology “Reading Dance”

Sarah Hall, “How to Paint a Dead Man”

Christina Hardyment, “Heidi’s Alp: One Family’s Search for Storybook Europe”

Richard Horan, “Seeds: One Man’s Serendipitous Journey to Find the Trees That Inspired Famous American Writers from Faulkner to Kerouac, Welty to Wharton”

Paul Lisicky, “The Burning House”

Carol Moldaw, “So Late, So Soon: New and Selected Poems”

Hjalmar Olsson, “Kinky Rockcarvings in Sweden”

Marjorie Perloff, “Vienna Paradox”

Poets and Writers magazine

What is the best advice you have ever received?

From my mom: “Butt in chair, pen in hand, paper on desk, write.” Then later, my mom gave me more good advice: “Keep writing.”

What advice would you give to beginning writers?

Read widely with an open mind and heart. Write everywhere and anywhere, for anyone and everyone. Keep knocking on all doors. Be professional. When you take a writing workshop or submit work, don’t be a jerk.

What’s next?

I have readings scheduled in the States after the release of “Body of a Dancer” on December 1st at many independent bookstores that have been wonderfully supportive already. I’d love to teach more writing workshops. As ever, I’ll continue reading and writing and volunteering for Idaho Master Forest Stewards and lurching my way through the Italian language like a drunken donkey. (We live in the Italian-speaking area of Switzerland.)

For major writing projects, I have in mind a triptych with “Body of a Dancer” as the first in the series. The second is in the editing stage, and I have started the third about working in our Idaho family forest as a means of encompassing family tragedy.

Recently, we started a quirky family project about our cross-continental cultural experiences, our Swiss and Idaho hikes, our travels, and our rescue miniature dachshund Tootsie.

Thanks so much for interviewing me, Janet! I’ve really enjoyed the process. In case people have not heard, I want to share information that the &NOW Festival will be held in Paris in June. Information is available here.

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